It's a Fine Line Between Truth and Propaganda

Recently, on Hemant Mehta's FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling. Here are some of the featured headlines:

Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack 

Islamic states reject UN's attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law

Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad

Female genital mutilation victim was 'aged just seven' 

Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan's Buddhist monks

Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot

Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven

Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual

'Spiritual healer' George Goak guilty of groping patients

India villagers kill two for 'witchcraft'

Now, truthfully, if I didn't blog about religion, I probably wouldn't have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn't have value. I think it's important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.

However — you knew that was coming, didn't you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself  getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.

But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let's hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don't share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general  every month.

10030271_h23302287_custom-b36e0cb541df443cc59199e783c085119bd665c2-s6-c30Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That's her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you'll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.

It's much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it's much harder to be angry when there's nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?

My hope is that someday religious belief won't need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of "God" gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video's core message.

But let's at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let's try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.

No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.

And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.

My Kid is Ignorant — Isn't That Hilarious?

After I wrote my blog last week about cute conversations nonreligous parents have with their kids, a reader sent me a link to a post on the Friendly Atheist website about actress Julia Sweeney. Run by a guy named Hermant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist is a great site — mostly because of its Ask Richard segment — but isn't always very "friendly," if you ask me.

The post told of a recent experience Sweeney (Letting Go of God) had while introducing her 9-year-old daughter, Mulan, to the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sweeney wrote:

I thought maybe it was a good way for her to learn about Jesus. HA. She was so bewildered. I realized that since she hasn’t been inculcated with religious behaviors, everything just seems weird to her. Things I would have never had the naive open-mindedness to even ask. For example, at one point she asked me, “Why do those sick people want to touch Jesus?” I said, “Because they think he’s magic and can heal them.” Mulan said, “Why would anyone think that?” Me: “Because they didn’t have very much scientific information.” Mulan: “That’s crazy.” Then I had to stop the film and tell her that lots of people in the world still believe things like that.

Later she asked, “Why are all those women putting oil on Jesus’ head, and sort of leaning on him like that?” I said, “Well, one — Mary Magdalene, is like Jesus’ girlfriend. The other women — well, when you’re a cult leader, or actually this can be true of any very high status man — women fawn all over you.” “Creepy.” Mulan said. Then she fell asleep and I didn’t wake her up.

Is it just me, or does Sweeney seem to be bragging about her kid's religious ignorance?

I know I'm biased, but I just don't get it. What about this story is interesting or funny? Would it interest you to know that my daughter doesn't know how to do the laundry because I haven't taught her? Would you write about how funny it is that your 4-year-old son has no idea how babies are born? There are elements of surprise and humor in a great many of the stories parents tell. But ignorance alone just doesn't cut it. And it's not just Sweeney; more and more parents these days voice a certain pride when their children reach a certain age and still haven't heard religious concepts.

So, yeah, in the end, I wasn't impressed with Sweeney's story. But it was Mehta's comment that threw me over the edge.

When summarizing his post on Sweeney, Mehta asked his (many) readers:

"Have any of you had similar teaching experiences with your children?"

No, wait, I'm sorry, did he just say teaching experiences?

As in, learning?

Dude, since when does showing a 9-year-old child Jesus Christ Superstar — a terribly funny but outlandish, outdated comic musical — pass off as teaching? Especially when, like Sweeney, all you do is pause the show to say: "And you know what, kid? People ACTUALLY BELIEVE this stuff! Hahahahaha! Isn't that hilarious?"

Like I said, it's not that I don't think these sorts of conversations can be funny — obviously I do! — or that I don't recognize that the fantastical elements of religion are going to seem downright wackadoo to any non-indoctrinated child. I just don't think it should be a point of pride when your kid dismisses religion as crazy because you've presented it as crazy. Maybe it's the arrogance of it all? The indoctrination factor? I don't know. But it's very off-putting to me — especially when it comes from atheists I admire, and who are in a position to influence others. And, dammit, if Sweeney didn't miss a golden opportunity.

I guess it comes down to this: Conferring with your very young children about how dumb religious beliefs can seem isn't nearly as funny as some people think. And I certainly don’t think it’s anything to brag about.

Then again, I wouldn't be writing this book if I did.

'Dear Abby' for the Heathen Set

If you happen to fall somewhere toward the non-believing end of the religious spectrum, you've probably had a chance to see first-hand how complicated life can be there. Sure, you're comfortable, happy and confident with your world view. But you're also in a position to deal with perception issues, familial struggles, disagreements with society at-large, and uncertainty about bringing up kids in what amounts to a 21st Century counterculture.

Questions are bound to arise.

And when they do, Richard Wade answers them.

Wade is the author of "Ask Richard," the country's most well-known advice column for nonbelievers. His column runs regularly on the website Friendly Atheist, where he is considered a godsend — or the secular equivalent of a godsend — to thousands of people struggling with the sometimes painful intersection of belief and non-belief. (An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Wade was awarded the 2011 Bloggie award for best weblog about religion. That honor went to Hemant Mehta, creator of the Friendly Atheist site.)

As a person, Wade is as cool as they come. (But you already knew that because, you know, the hat.) He's straight-shooting, calm-demeanored, uber-compassionate and whip-smart. Week after week, he manages to offer sympathetic, thoughtful and insightful answers to tough, sometimes impossibly tough, questions from lovable heathens around the country. And, at a time when the ranks of the nonreligious are among the fastest growing "religious" group in the country, Wade's advice is increasingly sought out and valuable.

All of his columns are worth reading, but, for the purpose of this blog, I've tried to post links to only those dealing specifically with parenting.

Don't forget to let me know what you think in the comment section! I'm always looking for other members to add to my newly formed Richard Wade Fan Club. Yes, there's a secret handshake. I serve donuts and coffee at the monthly meetings. And posters are available at a nominal fee. (But hurry while supplies last. The posters go quickly. Chicks, as it turns out, dig hats more than they do scars.)

Single Mother's Parents are Proselytizing Her Kid

Atheist Husband and Father Continues to go to Church

My Mom is Dying: Should I Lie to My Kids About Death?

Teaching My Kids Religious Tolerance and Science at the Same Time

Mother Lets Son Attend Church, Gets Flak From Fellow Atheists

What Do I Offer My Kids for Comfort and Assurance?

I Want to Stop My Nephew's Interest in Religion

How Do I Handle My Six-Year-Old's Beliefs?

My Zealous Catholic Parents are Indoctrinating My Kids

New Dad Misses Belief That God Will Protect His Daughter

Respecting Beliefs vs. Respecting Treatment

Atheist's Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion

Am I a Hypocrite in a Group of Christian Mothers?

Atheist Parents Disagree About Circumcision

Relating to Religious People at Times of Grief

Disagreeing About Future Children and Prayer

You may also, of course, write to Wade with your own questions. His e-mail is askrichard@ca.rr.com.